(Originally posted in The Sunday Mail)
by Sharon Kavhu
The Ministry of Health and Child Care is pushing for the introduction of a legal framework to support the distribution of contraceptives to “adolescents” aged between 10 and 24 under an ongoing
initiative that officials say is designed to curtail teenage pregnancies. Among the contraceptives are birth control pills, implants, injectables and condoms.
Presently, 91 centres countrywide are already dispensing contraceptives to adolescents through the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC). However, a legal framework is required to align laws concerning sexual relations involving minors with the policy.
In an interview last week, the director of family health in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Bernard Madzima, said authorities took the decision following a sharp increase in teenage pregnancies and a high maternal mortality rate.
Dr Madzima said those who visit designated dispensaries are first counselled before the contraceptives are issued. The World Health Organisation defines adolescents as those between the ages of 10 and 24.
“The current framework for the National Adolescence Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy (ASRH) for 2010 to 2015 allows adolescents to access contraceptives although the country’s legislation sues any individual who indulges in sexual activities with a girl under the age of 16.
“Statistics from the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey (ZDHS) and Ministry of Health and Child Welfare parastatals show that the number of teenage pregnancies is high and continues to increase.
“We are concerned as a ministry. So, therefore, we want to strengthen the ASRH programmes.”
Dr Madzima said many sexually active adolescents hardly visit youth centres, fearing legal and policy contradictions and would only freely access contraceptives once the legal framework is in place.
He said the ministry could not ignore the existence of sexually active youngsters given the numerous teenage pregnancies.
“Most adolescents are being sexually active. Some have actually gone on
to become parents,” he said.
Commenting on the policy, ZNFPC technical services director Dr Edmore Munongo said the council has set up 91 centres to offer “youth-friendly services”, which also enable adolescents to access the contraceptives.
Of these centres, 65 are located at hospitals while the remainder comprises stand-alone sites. They provide counselling, HIV and Aids testing and also treat sexually transmitted infections.
Dr Munongo said boys constituted 60 percent of visitors to the centres.
“In a bid to implement the Ministry of Health and Child Care ASRH framework, which advocates adolescent access to contraceptives, we have so far managed to put up 26 youth centres and 65 youth corner centres countrywide.
“Friendly youth corner centres are established at Government hospitals while the youth centres are built outside the hospitals, usually in remote areas.
“The majority of the adolescents showing interest in the youth centres are boys as they constitute at least 60 percent of our clients.
“Girls are the most vulnerable. This is mainly due to culture and social expectations. This is a challenge for us to strengthen our programme. So, there is need to convince parents first through the enactment of a law. Most of them (females) prefer the pill method. However, we encourage them to take double contraceptives where they use both condoms and other contraceptive methods.”
According to the United Nations Population Fund, adolescent girls aged between 15 and 19 constitute a quarter of the 960 Zimbabwean females who die as a result of pregnancy-related complications annually.
The Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey shows teenage pregnancies have increased from 21 percent between 2005 and 2006 to 24 percent between 2010 and 2011. The Ministry of Health and Child Care subsequently launched the ASRH (2010-2015) programme to reduce teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections through increased ASRH knowledge and access to contraceptives.
Sexuality, reproductive health and HIV and Aids consultant Dr Caroline Maposhere said every parent would not want his or her child to indulge in sex before marriage. She said it was, however, a fact that some young people were sexually active.
“As a parent, I would not want my child to be sexually active before marriage, but, in reality, there are single adolescents who are having sex and such individuals need to have more knowledge on sexual reproductive health,” said Dr Maposhere.
“It is essential for these adolescents to access counselling and contraceptives.
“For instance, currently, teenagers above 16 years can access contraceptives on their own while those below 16 should access with parental guidance.
“Such adolescents need to take responsible decisions after being equipped with enough information on the repercussions of their activities.”
Zimbabwe Youth Council communications officer Mr Innocent Katsande said the council was keen to participate in decisions that the ministry makes as long as they were protecting youths and their health.
“As a council and on behalf of the Junior Parliament, we are pushing for abstinence among adolescents because it is the safest method of combating teenage pregnancy and STIs. We also encourage our stakeholders to put value on the educational system so that adolescents may grow with cultural values which dissuade them from being sexually active before marriage,” said Mr Katsande.